Last edited 08 Nov 2020

The history and techniques of woodturning



The various natures of wood define the technique of woodturning. The grain of the wood will change the orientation relative to the axis and the types of tools and techniques needed. However, the grain is always perpendicular to the direction of rotation.

There are several other factors which will affect woodturning, such as moisture and the character of the wood. So, what is woodturning, where did it originate, and what are the techniques available?


What is woodturning?

Woodturning is the process of using tools to cut and mould shapes onto wood while it turns on an axis of rotation. It usually uses a tool called a wood lathe which performs operations such as sanding, cutting, knurling, facing, turning, drilling and deformation. The worker operating the machine is known as a turner, and the craft is traditionally referred to as turnery.

Through woodturning, it is possible to make items such as candlesticks, lamps, rolling pins, egg cups, chess pieces, or any wooden piece moulded into a form. Even though industrial production has replaced much of the production of these items, the wood lathe and turnery is still relevant in the bespoke making of items. Whether this is a hobby or means of employment, woodturning can save time and money, it is also a fun and satisfying art.


The history of woodturning

What we know about the historic craft of woodturning is limited because of the nature of wood, with its fibres prone to rotting. Early lathe workers would use their bare feet to hold the cutting tools in place while using their hands to power the lathe.

Our first knowledge of bowls and cups being made through woodturning date from between 500 and 1500 AD. This comes from excavated shipwrecks such as the Oseburg burial ship and the Mary Rose.

As early as the 1500s, a separate fly wheel would power the lathe, but as time progressed the machine adapted to use power sources such as water, electricity and steam.

In the 19th and early 20th century, English woodturners would work in turning shops, usually using a master and apprentice system. In the US, woodturning was also a part of the school system curriculum. This included learning how to build furniture and tool management skills – some of which can still be seen in schools today.


Techniques of woodturning

With an understanding of some basic woodturning techniques and the correct equipment, it is possible to produce anything from traditional wooden items to avant-garde creations.

  • Spindle turning: This is the most common and basic technique in wood turning, and is the simple process of turning the spindle once mounting the wood between the head and tailstock of the lathe. There are several types of spindles that can be used, chosen according to individual applications.
  • Decorative spindle turning: This differs to normal spindle turning as it includes roughing, sizing and smoothing stocks of wood. This process needs a more elaborate form of cutting which can make more intricate grooves as well as curves and shapes.
  • Segmented turning: This turning method involved several pieces of wood taken together to form a wood blank. Every segment of the wood is glued together before turning. The segmented turning process can create some of the most exciting formations and patterns.
  • Faceplate turning: This single fluid technique differs to spindle turning and allows much more freedom. A faceplate is a circular metal plate which fixes onto the end of the lathe and can help to hold and save time.
  • Bowl turning: An experienced turner can use a bowl gouge to get the required result. This technique requires a gouge bevel held on a wood blank and transformed into a bowl shape. With the help of scraping tools, it is possible to create the perfect bowl.
  • Alternative techniques include; eccentric turning, therming, green turning, ornamental and more.

--G&S Specialist Timber 15:35, 06 Sep 2017 (BST)

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